Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Ben Affleck’s Oscar nomination for Argo, announced this week, reignited what CNN calls a “controversy” surrounding the film.
As we reported back when the film was announced in June 2011, director Ben Affleck decided that he would be the best actor to portray legendary American CIA agent Antonio “Tony” Mendez. The missed opportunity? Tony Mendez is part Mexican American and multiethnic. Under the guidance of director Ben Affleck, the role of Tony Mendez would have been a great opportunity for a Chicano actor to star in a stereotype-defying, heroic lead role. (Given so many other characters in the Argo story are white, Ben Affleck would have still had several opportunities to portray a white character involved in this historical event.)
Argo depicts Mendez’s ingenious plan to recruit Hollywood consultation in formulating a rescue plan for six American diplomats trapped in Iran, while taking more than a few creative liberties. The film has been criticized for making up a climactic action scene and for downplaying the role of the Canadian government in helping the Americans escape.
More recently, Affleck’s questionable decision to cast himself as Mendez has received more attention from Latino communities and the media.
Latino film producer Moctesuma Esparza writes:
Not only did a Latino actor not play Tony, who clearly in real life looks like a Chicano, but his ethnicity is stolen from the Latino community at a time when Latinos have been demonized. Our real Latino national heroes, if acknowledged, would dramatize our patriotism and contribution to the United States. The film actually goes out of its way to obscure Tony Mendez’s ethnicity. His name is mentioned only once and the character says he is from New York (Tony was born in Nevada from a mining family with six generations in Nevada and raised in Colorado). Nowhere in the movie does the viewer get that the hero is Mexican-American…
Instead, like with the story of Guy Gabaldon, whose extraordinary achievements in the WWII Battle of Saipan, capturing, by himself, 1800 enemy soldiers, more than any other American soldier in the history of our country, was similarly whitewashed as Jeffrey Hunter played him in the 1960 film, “Hell to Eternity.” But that was more than half a century ago, Argo is now. …In Argo we have yet another instance where the public has been denied an opportunity for all Americans to learn of an American Latino’s valor, talent and patriotism. This occurs because there has been no consequence to this behavior. It is time for a change.
Sure, Argo will get is slew of honors and rave reviews, but for us it will always be known as “The Really Strong Movie That Should Have Had a Latino Play the Lead Character, Who Is Latino in Real Life.”
While mindfully debating how rigid racial boundaries should be in casting film roles, CNN’s Ruben Navarette Jr. writes:
“Affleck should have tried to cast a Latino to play Mendez. That’s common sense, and it would have made “Argo” a better movie…before Latinos can be fully integrated into America and not considered outsiders, we have to take every opportunity to push for inclusion and fairness. And acknowledging that Latinos have the skills to play themselves is a good start.”
Kirk Whisler, President of Latino Print Network and board member of the National Association of Latino Independent Producers, writes:
“Films and television are the most common ways than many non-Latinos see the roles that Latinos are playing or have played within American society. When those roles are played by non-Latinos, major opportunities are lost forever.”
Slate’s Amanda Hess writes:
“It’s well-established that the overrepresentation of white dudes in film directing means more movies about white dudes that reflect the values and interests of white dudes…In rare cases, these directors have used their power to highlight alternate perspectives…and sometimes, these directors are actually correcting imbalances in Hollywood storytelling. There aren’t enough good roles for elderly actors, for example.
“But you know who there really aren’t enough good roles for? Non-white, non-dude actors. Male actors are still valued higher than female ones. They get better roles and draw higher salaries (Taylor Lautner made more than Kristen Stewart in 2010). Historically, moving behind the camera has been easier for men than women. Meanwhile, black and Latino audiences buy movie tickets at a higher rate than white viewers, but appear less frequently on screen and are rarely stationed behind the camera. And characters of color are still routinely whitewashed, from Argo to the Hunger Games…white dudes like Affleck might consider not always putting themselves at the center of the frame—not because it would make them better people, but because it will make for more compelling films.”
Salvador Gomez writes:
“Leaving out even half of Mr. Mendez’s lineage and not casting an actor who best reflected that lineage of Mr. Mendez is shortsighted in the extreme. It cheats the viewer of the richness of that heritage and his love for this country. It steals the hopes and dreams of young people of a heritage they belong to and identify with and teaches them what they can accomplish…what is possible.
“And who ever said that identifying with a proud culture meant shying away from this country we all love? I am Latino. I am Hispanic. I am a U.S. citizen born and raised here in Southern California. And I love this country. A decorated CIA operative like Tony should remember that. Mr. Affleck, I am a great admirer of your work but always remember there are still dreamers out there and they come in all shapes and colors.”
Actor Esai Morales on the casting:
“There’s no reciprocity. We rarely if ever play non-Latino roles… when they’re heroic. We play them more often than not when they’re shitty or despicable. We’re almost always the zero but practically NEVER the hero… in any significant way. Even or especially to portray OURSELVES as heroes…
“We, real life ‘Latinos of American descent’ are rarely if ever hired to play ourselves when it comes to our best and brightest in real life…Latinos are caucasian as well but American borne Latinos are invisible when it comes to being hired for heroic roles… Our heroes, real or rarely imagined, are open game for appropriation by anyone with half a name in this town and nobody sees the artistic insult to so many of our own who couldn’t even compete for the chance to truly break barriers in H’wood. This isn’t as plain and simple as it seems to you but when you spend three decades in the biz like I have you see patterns and practice that systematically limit the opportunities to excel in your craft, enlighten your communities and truly empower your people, human beings of all kinds.”
At a screening of Argo, Ben Affleck finally answered a question about his casting. Affleck explained:
“You know, I obviously went to Tony and sought his approval…was the first thing. And Tony does not have, I don’t know what you would say, a Latin/Spanish accent, of any kind really, and… you know you wouldn’t necessarily select him out of a line of ten people and go ‘This guy’s Latino.’ So I didn’t feel as though I was violating some thing, where, here’s this guy who’s clearly ethnic in some way and it’s sort of being whitewashed by Ben Affleck the actor. I felt very comfortable that if Tony was cool with it, I was cool with it.”
Affleck would go on to say: “[Mendez's] family’s been in this country for a long long time…It raises issues of assimilation, and ‘What are our goals?’, ‘What are we shooting for?’ and ‘What sort of integrity do we have to have with playing parts that are of other ethnicities?’ Obviously, there are ways where it’s obvious it can be ridiculous, but that’s not what we’re talking about … but actually I don’t think you have to be Croatian to play Croatian. I think the most important thing… the two most important things… about this issue are: 1. We do have to maintain a strong presence of Latino roles, African American roles in our national culture of drama and 2. that those parts don’t become… minimized or indeed marginalized.”
It was a weird and contradictory hedge on a straightforward question. Writer Maria Nieto, who spoke with Affleck about the whitewashing “accusation,” says that she believes that Affleck is sincere, and reports that Ben Affleck told her “in accusations of whitewashing ethnic characters, he would hate to be accused of something which he is so adamantly against.”
So even Ben Affleck agrees that whitewashing is wrong. He just doesn’t think that taking on the role of Tony Mendez counts as whitewashing, apparently because Mendez speaks without an accent, doesn’t look “clearly ethnic,” and is from an “assimilated” family. He then uses a white ethnic example, Croatian, to argue that (presumably, white) actors can play Croatian characters even if they are not Croatian. What Affleck doesn’t realize is that he is actually belying nativist stereotypes of Latinos and not fully recognizing the history of institutional racism and assimilation of whiteness in the United States. Perhaps inadvertently, Affleck is implying that he does not feel Mendez is being whitewashed because, like “Croatians,” Mendez is to him, essentially “white” American–not a Latino with(stereotypical) Latino traits like an accent, “ethnic” looks, or immigrant parents.
Casting a white actor to play the role of one of our country’s most revered Latino CIA agents invalidates Mendez’s experiences as a person of mixed ethnicity, and invalidates Mendez’s ability to pass as someone of many ethnicities and races as part of his CIA work due to the fact that he did not look like a “conventional” white American. Mendez himself noted in a 1999 interview that his mixed Chicano heritage was part of what made him so effective as a CIA exfiltrator: “My (appearance) is such that I can be in India and look Muslim or do the same thing in Russia and Latin America.”
Tony Mendez mentions in his book about the Argo heist that he has the abilty to “pass” for someone who is white (an arbitrary racial category to begin with). He also states in an interview with NBC Latino that he does not identify strongly with his Chicano roots and therefore does not “think of [him]self as Hispanic,” but rather as “a person who grew up in the desert.” (Note that Mendez does not state that he identifies as white, just as “a person from the desert”–Argo, of course, depicts Affleck’s Mendez as a city-dweller.)
For the Argo mission, Mendez took on the alias of “Kevin Costa Harkins,” and formulated a back story for his alias that explain his looks: “Costa Harkins” is a “black Irish” person with Mediterranean heritage. He completed the disguise by assuming an Irish accent and dressing in tweedy clothes. So yes, both Affleck and Mendez could pass themselves off as a dark-featured Irish person–but Affleck would likely be less successful in other places Mendez has worked such as in India and Latin America.
We also don’t see Hollywood bending backwards to hire Latino actors for every dark-haired Irish (or white, for that matter) lead role. We do–and have for decades–seen that Hollywood is more than willing to continually cast white actors for Latino roles, even for characters like Pancho Villa. There is a demonstrable bias against Latino actors in Hollywood–82% of lead film roles would not go to white actors while only 1.2% go to Latino actors. If Hollywood truly did see white Latinos as interchangeable with white actors, surely we would be seeing them in more films!
Then, there’s “Julio” — a character no one is mentioning because he was erased from the film all together.
While the film makes it look like Affleck exfiltrated the diplomats on his own, in real life, Mendez had a partner, who he describes using the alias “Julio.” Together, Mendez and Julio worked together as part of a team to extract the diplomats. Julio was a translator fluent in English, German, French, Spanish, and Farsi. Like Mendez, he was the kind of person who could blend in unobtrusively. While Mendez used an Irish alias, Julio used a South American alias, pretending to be a financial backer of Mendez’s fictional movie.
There had to have been room for a Latino actor in a significant role in this film, somewhere. Even if Affleck wanted to play Mendez, he could have thrown in “Julio.”
Looking past Argo, for a moment…it’s easy to see that it’s not the only based-on-a-true-story film or any other kind of film that could feature actors of color, but doesn’t. There were no Latino actors nominated for the Academy Awards that Argo is competing in. Argo also isn’t the only film that Ben Affleck has directed–none of his films have starred a Latino actor. Even if Ben Affleck and Tony Mendez feel justified in their portrayal in Argo, something bigger is missing in the cinema landscape.
As the tagline for the movie says: “The movie was fake. The mission was real.”